By Jacob Wampfler
In a year that has already given us quality horror films such as It Follows and Creep, yet another thriller-esque gift has been placed in front of genre fans and indie-film lovers alike. Faults, directed by newcomer Riley Stearns, featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard, Smashed) and a cast of brilliant character actors, makes the viewer begin to wonder if they really have “seen it all before” when it comes to an overcrowded slate of Hollywood productions.
Faults belongs to one of the tiniest and, perhaps, most negligible of sub-genres: films about cults. My first foray into this sub-genre began with a film called Sound of My Voice in which two investigative journalists infiltrate a cult to determine its legitimacy, while one of the team has much deeper-seeded motivations for doing so. A brilliant young actress named Brit Marling (Arbitrage, The East), in that film, plays the winsome cult leader, Maggie. As I watched that film, I was hard-pressed to think of ways I would be able to deny Maggie’s charm and magnetism, if placed in the same situation as the journalists.
In similar fashion, Faults challenges the viewer through Winstead’s striking performance as Claire, a troubled young woman who has been wholly inculcated with the belief system of the Faults cult, after which the film is named. Instead of a leader, Claire is a follower. From the outset, she is described as a victim by her parents, who seek the help of a once-renowned cult specialist and deprogrammer Ansel Roth (Leland Orser). However, as the opening seconds of the film convey, Roth is now a washed-up sad sack who can’t (or won’t) even pay for his meal at a hotel diner. It is the juxtaposition of Ansel Roth and Claire that creates the sheer insanity of this film and leaves the audience wondering who exactly is influencing whom.
Much of the film takes place in two hotel rooms, the location for Claire’s deprogramming. I have read elsewhere that the film progresses like a stage play. There are, in fact, more than a few one-shot takes and scenes in which the cameras keep rolling through truly uncomfortable scenes that cause one’s skin to crawl. As such, Orser and Winstead are utterly convincing in their respective roles. Orser’s performance gives the film a tinge of dark comedy, while the viewer never doubts Winstead’s portrayal of a young woman who has completely lost touch with reality (check out Smashed for Winstead’s similarly inspired portrayal of soul-crushing alcoholism).
In addition to the film’s acting and cinematography, Faults sets itself apart an astute low-budget exercise in less-is-more filmmaking, even as it relates to scripting and set design. Although the era in which the film takes place is never overtly stated, the absence of cell-phones as well as the clothing and automobiles all suggest that this is a film set in the late 70’s to early 80’s. One doesn’t tend to notice such things until after the fact, though, given that this film gets crazier with every mounting second.
While exploring interesting territory, Faults is not without its missteps. A tiny bit more exposition could have been used in relation to the actual cult and its belief systems, in order to bolster Roth’s deprogramming process with Claire. Likewise, a sub-plot in the film focusing on Roth’s indebtedness to a former manager and his lackey create distraction in an otherwise tight script. While the payoff to said sub-plot is indeed a boon to the film, in horrifying fashion, it remains a bit baffling given it’s overall scope (but who am I to complain about character actor Lance Reddick showing up as a loan shark!).
Faults is a rare film indeed. From its opening to closing scene, one might wonder if they are still watching the same movie. Through its steady and methodical pacing, the viewer is left questioning if what they are seeing on screen is reality or something else entirely. Reinforced by the excellent work of Orser and Winstead, Faults establishes itself as a taught thriller in the cult film sub-genre, with just enough comedic darkness to throw the viewer off-kilter. As it pertains to Faults (the film, that is!), I’m a believer…how about you?